The Kaweka Forest Park: Two Hot Springs up one Road

March 11, 2022
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ON the 18th of January this year, in the heat of summer, I nevertheless decided to drive up to the Mangatutu Hot Springs from Hastings. My trusty Nav said it would be only an hour and 38 minutes.

The Mangatutu Hot Springs are in the Kaweka Forest Park, wild country east of the volcanoes of the central North Island. I took a photo of a Department of Conservation (DOC) map on public display in an information centre, which shows where they are. I've highlighted the location with a yellow box as the text gets a bit hard to read where it is green on green.

Detail from DOC map of Hawkes Bay attractions. Yellow box around the Te Puia Track and the Mangatutu Hot Springs, and the locality of Puketapu (name and red circle), both added for this blog post. Image processed for clarity, north at top. CC BY 4.0.

Most of the journey is on a road called the Puketitiri Road, which begins west of Napier, though I joined it from Hastings. As you can see from the map above, you could make a real day of it, first visiting the Otatara Pā Scenic Reserve just south of Taradale, the southernmost suburb of Napier. The Otatara Pā is a well-preserved Māori fighting-pā from the old days, one of the very few that still remain in a completely authentic condition.

And then up Springfield Road and Puketapu Road for a short distance to Puketapu, where there is the excellent, affordable, award-winning country pub and restaurant, the Puketapu Hotel (1885). This would be good for brunch.

Duly refreshed, continue on to the Puketitiri Road and, if you want, the Whakamaharatanga (or Whakamaratanga) Walkway, by way of a detour down to Bay View via Seafield Road and up Onehunga Road to the walkway. This leads around, and also to the summit, of a hill called Rorookuri, the site of two Māori pā in older times. The interesting thing about Rorookuri, which also has great views of Napier and the coast, is that before the 1931 Napier Earthquake it was an island: the surrounding farmland was all under the sea!

After that, you can visit the William Hartree Memorial Scenic Reserve. The DOC web page says that "Mrs Audrey Hartree donated this area in 1962 in memory of her late husband William. The family were active conservationists." I love these old-time conservationists! The least you can do is pop in and pay your respects by wandering for twenty minutes or so through the native bush that the Hartrees strove to restore.

A little further along, down a side road called Little Bush Road, is Little Bush, where there is a 45 minute loop walk through regenerating bush. According to the Royal New Zealand Forest and Bird Protection Society, "Despite its small size, the Little Bush Reserve is notable for the constant birdsong, particularly bellbird and tui." Forest & Bird, as we call them for short, also urge you to leave the mutt at home. There are definitely no dogs allowed into Little Bush.

Then there is the Hutchinson Domain, a pleasant picnic area adjacent to the local DOC base, a short distance up Hukanui Road from its intersection with Puketitiri Road. Again, no pooches allowed. In fact I would take that as a rule of thumb for all of these reserves, jointly known as the Puketitiri Reserves.

The Hukanui Road intersection

And finally there is Ball's Clearing Scenic Reserve, signposted at the Hukanui Road intersection and formerly known as Big Bush, described on the relevant DOC page as an "outstanding example of dense virgin podocarp forest . . . best seen from the network of walking tracks that vary in time from 10 to 40 minutes." There is an 800 metre section of track suitable for wheelchairs, so it is a very accessible remnant of the former wilderness.

The interesting thing about the Puketitiri Reserves is that they are made up of either unlogged or regenerating lowland forest, which is very unusual in New Zealand.

The lowland forests of New Zealand were the richest from the ecological point of view, being mostly quite similar to a tropical jungle or, as we now say, rainforest. But they were also ruthlessly logged and cleared for farmland, leaving the hill forests for later hikers and nature lovers.

The lush lowland forest of the Puketitiri Reserves

There is only the odd exception to this dismal rule in Aotearoa.

Some of the surviving remnants of lowland forest, or bush, are in out-of-the-way places such as parts of the South Island's West Coast, the Catlins/Te Tai Toka at the southern tip of the South Island, Rakiura/Stewart Island, northern Taranaki near Mōkau — and Puketitiri.

Ironically, the other sort of place where lowland forest still survives is in a number of urban parks and reserves, such as Deans Bush in Christchurch, and in several parks on Auckland's North Shore such as Smales Bush.

So, you either have to go far from town to experience this sort of jungle, or alternatively, if you are lucky, it may be as close as your neighbourhood city park.

But where you won't generally find it is anywhere in between, where the land was long ago cleared for farming by the proverbial box of matches.

At Ball's Clearing you are above 600 metres, or nearly 2,000 feet, above sea level. But the country is still fairly gentle and still counted as lowlands by local ecologists, though I bet it gets cold in winter.

However, that is the end of the line for easy motoring. For at Ball's Clearing, Puketitiri Road changes its name to Pakaututu Road, loses its tarseal, and heads into chasm country. The road doesn't gain much more altitude on this trip; indeed, Mangatutu Hot Springs is actually downhill by about a hundred metres from Ball's Clearing in net terms. But things get adventurous past Ball's Clearing all the same. Forget it if you are in a campervan, or towing a caravan.

After a while on the gravel you come to another gravel-only mountain road on the left, called Makahu Road. Down Makahu Road, you come eventually to the end of the line at the Mangatutu Hot Springs and the Mangatutu Hot Springs Campsite, beside the Mohaka River.

The end of Makahu Road, by the Mangatutu Hot Springs and the campground

Amazingly, I had the Mangatutu Hot Springs, which are quite well-appointed and have amazingly restful nature-views, completely to myself.

Spot the sole guest in the Mangatutu Hot Pools

I might have been surprised by some hairy hunter, but that didn't happen.

You can cool off in the nearby Mohaka River as well.

The Mohaka River, at Mangatutu Hot Springs

Even more amazingly, there's more! At Mangatutu, the Te Puia Track begins.

After six and a half kilometres of hiking, you get to the Te Puia Lodge. This is a fully serviced hut, with gas for cooking.

The Te Puia Lodge from the air. Photo by Lauren Buchholz, CC BY 4.0, via DOC.

A bit further on, you get to the Mangatainoka Hot Springs, which are also a fairly flash Onsen.

Mangatainoka Hot Springs. Photo CC BY 4.0, via DOC.

Quite surprisingly flash in fact, given that you are just, I mean totally, in the middle of nowhere by this stage.

There are two huts on the track, the Te Puia Lodge and also the Waiokaka Lodge at the end, near the Mangatainoka Hot Springs and the Mangatainoka Campsite.

The Te Puia Track. Map via NZ Topo Map, using information from Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand. CC BY 4.0. North at top.

Further Journeys (and a bit of local knowledge)

Apart from soaking in hot pools, there are lots of interesting tramping tracks in the Kawekas that I have never done, and about thirty huts in total.

From Te Puia Lodge, you can cross the Mohaka River on a swing bridge and then scramble nearly five hundred metres up to Makino Hut, at 980 metres above sea level.

Makino Hut. Photo by Andrej Ricnik, CC BY 2.0 via DOC.

There is a network of tracks in the Kaweka Forest Park that you can get to from Makino Hut, or via several other obscure side tracks and road ends, including the Makahu Saddle at the end of Kaweka Road past Littles Clearing. This area lies to the south of Makahu Road and should not to be confused with it or with Little Bush!

The Makahu Saddle area, showing the way to the Iron Whare (top centre). The road past Little's Clearing to the Makahu Saddle is Kaweka Road, reached via Whittle Road. Map via NZ Topo Map, using information from Toitū Te Whenua Land Information New Zealand. CC BY 4.0. North at top. Scale from NZ Topo Map but re-sketched for clarity.

This area includes the Iron Whare, which is probably the oldest tramping hut in New Zealand. The Iron Whare is mentioned in a diary entry from January 1882, and most likely dates back to the 1870s.

An information panel about the Iron Whare and other huts in the area, blasted by idiots with guns. Hopefully nobody was standing behind it at the time.

Whare is the Māori word for a traditional, modest sort of a house. It is a sign of the hut's age that is called a whare, as nineteenth-century North Island settlers often used Māori words for things, even more so than in today's New Zealand English.

Another really invaluable resource that I stumbled across was a 2003 Hastings District Council guide to heritage trails in the region, put together by locals and full of local knowledge of the kind that doesn't travel far, even these days.

It covers the journey that I have made here, from Puketapu to Mangatutu and beyond via Puketutiri, but much else besides including a number of lookouts with commanding views over Hawkes Bay that you just wouldn't hear about otherwise if you weren't a local. These include the Black Birch Lookout just off Kaweka Road, which was recommended highly to me by a friend who lives in Napier. The pamphlet is on I have reproduced the cover, here:

Crown Copyright Reserved

As a postscript, I should add that although the Kaweka Forest Park lies to the south of State Highway 5, the main highway that runs from Napier to Taupō, there is also another wild area north of SH5, called the Maungaharuru Range, which also has grand views and even a fenced-off mainland island called the Boundary Stream Mainland Island, which is being restocked with birds: fittingly so as Maungaharuru means 'the mountain that resounded', due to its once-extensive birdlife.

If you glance back to the DOC map near the start of this post, you can see the Boundary Stream Mainland Island, and other attractions nearby, numbered from 1 to 6 on the map. I plan to do a blog post about the Maungaharuru Range and the other places you can visit on the way up from Napier, to complement this one about the Kaweka Forest Park, once I get the opportunity!

For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on this website


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